By Henry Belanger Men's Fitness
As long as there has been illness there have been medical hucksters, trying to make a buck peddling "cures" for every conceivable ailment—real or imagined. Whether suffering from paralysis, "nervous troubles," or "tired blood," there have been unscrupulous pitchmen selling elixirs, instruments and other home remedies to treat what ails you. As you'll see below, these "cures" were often harmless, but in some cases they could leave you with far worse problems than what you had in the first place (and their use often meant that problems were left untreated by more effective means). In the 20th century, laws were passed and government agencies created to curb the sale of fraudulent medical treatments, but dubious health products continue to be sold to the gullible and desperate today.
1) Vibration Machines
Vibrating machines of all shapes and sizes—from handheld personal vibrators marketed to women for the treatment of "hysteria," to vibrating head massagers designed to stimulate hair follicles, to infamous quack John Harvey Kellogg's vibrating chair—have enjoyed popularity at various times since 1900. From the 1950s to the 1970s they were sold as weight loss equipment.
Vibrating machines have made a comeback recently, this time with some more credible claims. One manufacturer of a vibrating workout platform, Powerplate, is endorsed by celebrities and professional athletes like the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria and the Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau. According to a recent New York Times report, research generally suggests that working out on these machines has some short-term effect on performance, although researchers admit they're not sure why they work.
2) Electric Suspensory Belts
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fascination with electricity and its "magical" properties lent credibility to various health-related apparati touting curative powers. Several belts were marketed during this time, promising to cure "weakness, pain, and nervo-vital derangements" along with just about everything else. Dr. Pierce's Galvanic Chain Belt, from the late 1880s came with a free "electric suspensory" loop designed to treat "weakness of the sexual organs." Luckily for consumers, the batteries in the belt didn't create enough power to do any harm. Of course, it didn't do any good, either.
3) Heroin Cough Suppressants
Around the turn of the century, while you were in town picking up a belt to electrify your junk, you might have purchased a bottle of Bayer brand cough suppressant. The active ingredient? Heroin. It might leave you with a debilitating addiction, but it had a couple of things going for it: it was as easy to score as a bottle of milk and unlike most so-called health products in those days, it actually delivered on its claims.
4) Dr. Scott's Electric Flesh Brush
Another attempt to cash in on the fascination with all things electric, in the 1880s, Dr. Scott marketed this brush, emblazoned with the motto "The Germ of All Life Is Electricity." The "active" ingredient was a magnet, which purportedly cured "rheumatism, sciatica, gout, nervous debility, lumbago, neuralgia, toothache, malarial lameness, all pains and aches resulting from colds, impure blood" and "those 'back aches' peculiar to ladies." Hey, if you're going to sell a fake cure, there's no sense in discriminating. As ridiculous as Dr. Scott's invention sounds, magnet quackery is alive and well today, with its adherents making equally ridiculous claims.
5) Eyeball Massagers
If exercising your arms makes them stronger, shouldn't the same cause and effect apply to your eyes? The early 1900s saw a variety of eyeball massagers and vibrators designed to strengthen weak eyeballs. And while technology has advanced in the intervening century, gullibility apparently hasn't changed. Today, you can still avail yourself to 3 Stooges-inspired therapy at home, in the office, in the car—anywhere you have access to a USB port.
6) Centrifugal Rejuvenation
In 1935, Science and Mechanics magazine published a story touting the rejuvenating powers of centrifugal force. If old age is a process of succumbing to gravity, the thinking went, reversing gravity—in this case by building a elderly-friendly version of the Gravitron in the hospital—must have the opposite effect. It just made people dizzy.
7) Morphine "Soothing Syrup"
Everyone knows that in the early years (until 1903), Coca-Cola actually contained cocaine. But cocaine was hardly the only hard drug in everyday products back then. As early as 1849, Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine sulfate, was marketed to mothers as a treatment for teething children, promising to "soothe any human or animal." Like Bayer's cough suppressant, it worked, although by 1911 it was exposed by the American Medical Association as a "baby killer."
8) The Original 8-Minute Abs
In the 1890s, Swedish doctor Gustav Zander pioneered resistance training. His institutes in Stockholm, London and New York featured fitness equipment that resembles some of the machines in today's gyms. But not all of Zander's machines delivered desired results. This and other machines were meant to build strength by rhythmically hitting the user in the gut with padded leather discs.
9) Perkins Tractors
In the late 1700s, Elisha Perkins "invented" the Perkins Tractors. They were just two pointed metal rods made of steel and brass, but Perkins claimed they were made of rare alloys that, when passed over the skin, could cure rheumatism and various other ailments. George Washington reportedly bought a pair. Despite his claims of having cured 5,000 cases, he was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society for quackery.
10) Onanism Devices
From the 1870s to the 1930s, onanism, or masturbation, was believed to be not just evil, but bad for your physical and mental health—a vice as destructive as opium addiction. Semen was considered a vital fluid; therefore, onanists, by spilling their seed inappropriately, were subject to a host of ailments, from loss of strength, rheumatism, gout and headaches, to general ill-health. To deliver men from temptation, a range of treatments were used, from adolescent circumcision to protective cups and belts. Ouch.